Thursday, August 25, 2016

2016 Jackson Open - Déjà vu

  “It's like Déjà vu all over again” - Yogi Berra

  I headed to Jackson, Minnesota last weekend to play in my friend Sam Smith’s Jackson Open for the 5th year in a row. The first two years I played in Jackson I was so tired after the first three rounds that I skipped the last round of the tournament. I managed to play all four rounds the next two years and accomplished one of my Jackson goals last year by tying for second place and collecting a cash prize. Now that I finished in second place I had one unfulfilled goal in Jackson which was to take first place, a lofty goal that would require a lot of good play and a lot of luck but not entirely out of the question.

  I had an excellent warm-up at the Twin Ports Open in Duluth two weeks ago and spent the time between tournaments doing tactics puzzles and reviewing my games from Duluth. As usual the Jackson tournament had one game on Friday night and three games Saturday, all at a time limit of 90 minutes per player with a five second delay instead of the 30 seconds added to each move like in Duluth. Not wanting to drop $131 at the EconoLodge like I did last year I booked a room at the Earth Inn Motel online. There was the possibility that Sam’s friend Joel was going to be sharing my room on Friday so I picked the ‘Queen Room’ which had a picture of 2 beds for the incredibly low rate of $49. I also asked in the special request section of my order to have 2 beds in the room.

  I left the house at 10am and started the 240 mile trek to Jackson. To the delight of my beagles I made a bologna sandwich to take with me as well as some excellent red grapes from the Wal-Mart which were underpriced because they inconveniently were not seedless. I stopped for gas at Albert Lea where gasoline cost $2.15 a gallon which was 6 cents more than Iowa on Friday but 4 cents less than Iowa’s tax inflated gas prices by Saturday afternoon.

Welcome to Albert Lea!

  I made good time and arrived at the Earth Inn Motel in Jackson around 2:30. The Earth Inn Motel isn’t the kind of place with a front desk so I rang the bell and was soon greeted by Joe Manger (who was wearing a shirt that said so). Joe Manager gave me a room key. I headed to the room and found there weren’t two beds in the room as I had requested so I headed back down the hall to talk to Joe Manager. Joe told me that I needed to have ordered a room with two double beds from the web site or better yet that I should have called the Inn directly because if I had called him he would have 'had control'. I didn’t want to discuss control issues with a guy whose shirt said ‘Joe Manager’ so I asked if I could switch rooms and Joe said that was fine as if I hadn’t ‘dirtied up’ my room. Joe Manager said I was lucky that he had one room with a double bed left and switched me for an extra 10 dollars. I thanked Joe and moved my bag over to the next room.

If you have a problem at the Earth Inn Motel in Jackson, Minnesota Joe Manager will take care of it!

  The Earth Inn Motel’s room was just fine. It had a little microwave and refrigerator, exceptional wireless internet, a big television, was spotless, and best of all cost only $64 after the taxes and all were figured in. I settled into the room and took a nap until around 6:00 and headed over to the church where the tournament was being held for the 7:00 first round.

Steve Heinisch
  The church was less than a mile away from the Earth Inn and the only two people there were Sam and his wife Ana. There were only six players signed up in advance for the tournament but 13 more players decided to travel to Jackson to play on the day of the tournament with six players taking a half point bye instead of playing on Friday night. Sam doesn’t charge extra for not registering in advance and while that practice encourages people to make a last minute decision to play it also encourages long distance travelers to wait until the last minute in case bad weather makes the trip impractical. One of the late arrivals was Joel so I knew I was going to have a roommate at the Earth Inn Motel.

  Some late signups and pairing problems caused the first round to start about 20 minutes late. When I arrived at Jackson I was the highest rated player but by the time the tournament started I was the fourth highest rated player and had the White pieces against Steve Heinisch. My more avid readers may find that name familiar and it should be because I played Steve in the same Friday night game of this same Jackson Open with the same White pieces in 2013. Three years ago I drew Steve despite being rated over 300 points higher than him and I was lucky to get the draw. As it happens I had reviewed our game in the week before the tournament and felt fairly prepared as we sat down to play.

pgn4web chessboards courtesy of
  A long game but not especially draining. Steve used all his time and never got up from the board even once. After losing the pawn on move 7 Steve hung tough with his two bishops but the less time he had on the clock the more inclined he was to trade down until he had no pieces left. I was pleased with my play but now I think I could have made things a lot easier on myself by keeping my two bishops and using my extra pawn as a battering ram instead of an endgame trump. All in all I was pleased to have beaten someone who outplayed me three years ago.

  My game was the second to last to finish and it was a little after 10 when Joel and I left the church. Two years ago Joel and I roomed together and headed to the SuperAmerica convenience store for a snack but Joel said he needed a meal this night. Joel’s legs don’t work so he gets around using stick braces that hook over his arms. This puts a lot of stress on Joel’s back and he had to undergo back surgery last year and is still on pain medication that has to be taken with a full meal. The problem I had was trying to find somewhere to eat in Jackson, Minnesota after 10pm. The only place still open was the Burger King drive thru so we ordered some food and ate it at one of the picnic tables outside the restaurant. At 11 even the drive thru closed and the Burger King staff turned out the outside lights. We finished our meal in the darkness and headed back to the Earth Inn Motel for a good night’s sleep to prepare for the next day’s three long games.

A late night dinner in Jackson...

  I woke up at 4am like normal but forced myself back to sleep until 7am since I had no beagles to walk at the Earth Inn Motel in Jackson, Minnesota. The low priced room at the Earth Inn Motel did not provide for a free breakfast so Joel and I checked out and headed to the Embers restaurant next door. Joel had this big breakfast of eggs, toast, and bacon. Eggs tend to get me sick so I decided to have a Reuben Sandwich with hash browns. For the uninitiated, a Reuben is a corn beef sandwich with swiss chess, sauerkraut and Russian dressing (which I skipped). I must have been pretty hungry since I devoured my sandwich and hash browns in record time and had a couple of cups of coffee and then it was back to the tournament for the second round.

Dan Voje
  I was the fourth seed out of 19 players but with six players taking a half point bye instead of playing the Friday night game I found myself having the black pieces against top seed Dan Voje in the second round game that started at 9am on Saturday morning. My more avid readers may find that name familiar and it should be because I played Dan on a Saturday game in this same Jackson Open with the same Black pieces in 2014. In that game I was getting crushed by Dan until his attack went wrong when I found myself a pawn ahead. Dan had less than a minute left on his clock but I made several substandard moves to cost myself the game and a chance at the championship. I got myself a big cup of cold water, squeezed a lemon into it, and sat down for my second round game.

  What a disgusting game. Two years ago I lost to Dan by making a bunch of substandard moves at the two and a half hour mark and two years later I cost myself a game against the same player at the same tournament with the same color pieces in the same opening by making the substandard moves at the same two and a half hour mark. If it wasn’t so similar to the game two years ago I would blame my play on the combination of my lemon water and the Reuben sandwich making me as sick as I’ve ever been at a chess tournament but I know better. Starting from when I took on b4 I never saw the board as an entire unit. Dan’s capture on a7 came as a complete surprise and I never even noticed that I was going to lose my bishop until he took it. This poor play will never get it done against a tough as nails type of player like Dan.

  After that game I was sick of my playing and sick to my stomach and sick that I had no chance to win the tournament. There was an odd number of players so I decided to call it a day and withdrew from the tournament and headed home around 1. I made the long defeated drive home with another gas stop in Albert Lea at which point my stomach started feeling a lot better and at 5:30 I was greeted by an enthusiastic pair of beagles that were delighted to see me and couldn’t care less about whether I lost to Dan Voje or beat Steve Heinisch or anything else unrelated to the refrigerator or an afternoon walk.

  I felt kind of crummy bailing out on Sam and the tournament but ultimately I go to any chess tournament to have a good time and if I’m not feeling good I’m not having a good time and if I’m not having a good time there’s no reason to stick around. In reviewing my games in Duluth and Jackson the two trends I noticed is that my play got noticeably weaker into the third hour and I used way less time than my opponents. There’s a good reason for using less time – I run out of things to think about. The poor play late in games is more worrisome, especially if I continue to play in these longer time control tournaments. If I’m not spending time thinking I should have more energy later in the game and I don't. These aren’t new problems – they’re as familiar as the people I played in Jackson last weekend and it is a little discouraging to see that I have made little to no progress in solving them. I don’t have any more tournaments on my schedule and after a decidedly lackluster 2016 I should have plenty of time to work on these problems.

Thursday, August 18, 2016

Movie Review - Suicide Squad

  Suicide Squad is the latest DC comics inspired movie, featuring supervillains (except for one) previously unseen on the screen as the protagonists instead of superheroes. The film’s opening weekend occurred during my trip to Duluth so I went this past weekend to the local Marshalltown theatre with Kathy and our neighbor Don. The movie was critically panned and even though it led the box office on opening weekend with 133 million dollars it was criticized on its second weekend for only drawing 48 million which is more than a 60% drop-off. With the number of people having home theaters that can rival almost any movie theatre I can’t imagine many people paying $20+ dollars to see a movie a second time when it can be rented for $2 and seen in HD and surround sound at home.

  The Suicide Squad is a group of super-villains on death row that are injected with remote controlled explosives and tasked with eliminating two magical villains bent on destroying the planet. The Squad is controlled by government power broker Amanda Waller who ruthlessly kills the first member that threatens to rebel against her. The Squad is comprised of Deadshot, Harlequin, Diablo, Killer Croc, and Captain Boomerang. We are introduced to the Squad by Waller explaining how each was captured (including some guest appearances by Ben Affleck as the Batman) so the origins allow for some action scenes along with the seemingly obligatory slow moving scenes to introduce each character whiling away their life sentences in a max security prison.

  As soon as I saw the movie had the Joker I was looking forward to it more than even Batman vs. Superman. Batman and the Joker are the iconic characters of the DC universe. While the Joker is a proven psychopath each successive reinvention of Batman is darker and brings the Dark Knight closer and closer to using the Jokers methods of fear and intimidation to meet his goals. Batman has been in eight DC movies but the Joker has previously been in only two movies. Jerod Leto’s version of The Joker is more layered than his predecessors because his motivations aren’t just psychopathic mayhem – he is trying to rescue his girlfriend Harley Quinn (Harlequin) from prison and the predicament she has been placed in by being a member of the Squad. This allows The Joker to float in and out of the movie to advance the plot as needed.

  This Joker had cartoonish aspects like a machine gun firing henchman in a panda suit and Joker outfits ranging from a tux to a boy band leather jacket to go along with his trademark green hair. But the Joker is still a psychopath – just a younger hipper one with gold teeth, a body full of Jokerish tattoos, and the means to fund his criminal empire. The scenes where he seduces his insane asylum psychologist Dr. Harley Quinn into embracing his madness and becoming Harlequin was classic Joker and not something the previous Joker incarnations were ever allowed to attempt. The most terrifying Joker stunt was when a scientist refuses his commands only to shown a tablet facetiming his wife held at knifepoint begging her husband to ‘do whatever he says’. I always felt that Jack Nicholson’s Joker was JACK NICHOLSON playing THE JOKER while Heath Ledger’s Joker never had to explain his motivations except through Alfred’s ‘Some men just want to watch the world burn’ comment. Leto’s version is more similar to Ledger’s but with a punk rock sort of twist and a human side that I really liked especially in the small doses he appeared in through the movie.

  There were three main Suicide Squad characters: Harlequin (Margo Robbie), sharpshooter Deadshot (Will Smith), and the military leader of the group Rick Flag (Joel Kinnaman) . The rest of the Squad had minor roles designed to provide pathos (Diablo as a super powerful flame throwing pacifist, Katana as the mourning widow and Flag’s super heroine accomplice to keep the squad in line), comic relief (Captain Boomerang does little except drinks beer and say silly things in an Australian accent), special effects wizardry (Killer Croc who never seemed very terrifying except when eating prison guards) or a plot device to demonstrate the potency of the bombs injected into each of the Squad to ensure their compliance (Slipknot’s all too brief appearance).

  The Squad’s mission is to hunt down rogue member Enchantress, a millennia old sorceress and Suicide Squad member who happens to inhabit the body of Flag’s girlfriend. Enchantress escapes from the Squad and revives her equally ancient brother Incubus. The pair forces the evacuation of Midway City, turns U.S. soldiers into monstrous minions, and commences to create a machine that will destroy mankind.

  The Squad’s battles to get through the minions, disable the doomsday device, and stop the Enchantress/ Incubus duo was well choreographed, contained great special effects, and had a lot of action. The problem I had was that the magical villains of the piece were far too powerful for these Suicide Squad members to even hope to contain much less defeat. Incubus shoots tendrils out of his arms that behead people and destroy tanks yet Harlequin is able to fight him with a baseball bat and merely gets kicked around instead of disintegrated. Except for Diablo’s flame powers and Killer Croc’s super strength there are no super powers here to speak of since Deadshot and Captain Boomerang are weapon dependent. I guess that is the point of the ‘suicide’ in Suicide Squad but it made no sense to me that this group would even have a chance against super powered magical forces.

  I liked the interactions between the squad members but when the group obtains their freedom after Waller is seemingly killed I didn’t like their sudden turn to becoming sort of noble good guys after a ‘pep talk’ from Flag who had done nothing but threaten the crew with an explosive death for most of the movie. It would have made more sense to have the crew bond and then have one of their group butchered by the Enchantress as their motivation for risking their lives to stop her.

  Articles about the movie claim that is was originally written in a dark tone but was extensively remade to be more clownish just months before its release and it certainly has the feel of a movie that couldn’t decide whether to go dark or be funny. I would have liked to seen the antagonists of the movie be more on the pedestrian side of villainy as that would have played more to the strengths of the Suicide Squad’s lack of a-list super powers. This is an entertaining film but not the epic saga that will set the standard for the DC movie universe. If the Joker wasn’t in this film I would have considered it a jumbled mess of a film and wasted money but those that swear by the Ledger or Nicholson Joker as THE definitive portrayal of the character will likely be very disappointed.

  Despite the movie’s shortcomings, DC has set the table for an X-Men type (Deadpool and Wolverine) spin-off for Deadshot since Will Smith is still sort of a top-tier movie star and Harlequin whose brand of insanity could be great in a lighter movie. The big question to me is will The Joker get his own movie or will he be the Marvel version of Loki that pops in and out of other movies. I liked the Leto version of the Joker as a punk rock crime boss with brains and unlimited resources with a psychopathic side that can called upon as necessary. Hopefully DC will be able to build a franchise around the Clown Prince and not mothball the character for another decade until yet another Batman reboot.

Monday, August 15, 2016

2016 Twin Ports Open - The Day I Couldn't Win

Congratulations to Dane Zagar (l) and Dane Mattson (r) for a successful 2016 Twin Ports Open Chess Tournament. In addition to running a tournament spanning seven floors of the hotel they also found time to snap pictures like the one on the right featuring yours truly in action...

  I got to bed early Sunday morning but still woke up a 4am with two more rounds to go in the Twin Ports Chess Open. I was sitting a half point behind the leaders with 2.5 points out of 3 games. The first game didn’t start until 10 and there were no beagles to walk so I took a few naps in between posting beagle pictures on facebook and having another light breakfast in the Suites Hotel’s spectacular breakfast bar. At 9:30 I got up for good, checked out of the best hotel I may ever have stayed in, and headed to the 7th floor for the final two rounds of the tournament.

  Many of the players were concerned because they were told that they had to leave the hotel parking lot by 2pm to make way for new guests. I headed back down to the lobby and the clerk told me that there was free parking on the street on Sundays and the hotel had a parking lot near the dock that people could use. The hotel wasn’t used to people checking out but still staying in the hotel for things like chess tournaments but were very accommodating once clued in.

Ron Becker
  My opponent for the fourth round of the tournament was Ron Becker. Ron had taken a half point bye for the Saturday afternoon game and won his other two games to be half a point behind the leaders along with me and two others. Ron was rated 15 points below me so we were evenly matched. I had the black pieces and after my misadventures with Center Counter defense to the king pawn opening in last year’s tournaments spent considerable time rehabilitating them. There was nothing wrong with the opening per se – only with my treatment of it when I played an early e5. If my opponents counter attacked in the center I would get flustered and start making backwards moves. After considerable test games I realized that after having been aggressive in the center so early in the game there was no going back and in order to avoid getting the losing positions I earned last year I had to stay on the razor’s edge and keep the initiative because once I started moving backwards it was almost impossible to stem the tide. Inquiring minds may ask: Why bring up all this talk about my problems with the Center Counter defense and the importance of the initiative? Because this game put all my work to the test.

pgn4web chessboards courtesy of
  The draw offer took me by surprise and I accepted after very little thought. Chess-wise, the draw was justified. The position was even with Ron’s 2 bishops making up for his slightly weaker pawns. The likely result was we would have played for another hour or two and agreed to the draw unless one of us blundered the game away. Competitively speaking, the draw did nothing for me since I would still need to win my last round game to finish in the money. I had survived a sharp opening and wasn’t worse. I’ve won far more of these type of games than I lost against players rated about the same as me. And most importantly it was my opponent that offered the draw. Maybe he thought he was worse or wanted an early lunch or was discouraged at having what optically looked to be an opening advantage slip away. By continuing to play I would have had a psychological advantage as long as I didn’t make the mistake of trying to prove I had a win and just kept on playing. Looking back I didn’t regret taking the draw at the time and I think that was because I was pleased I survived the opening and maybe I felt I deserved the half point. I’m not planning on taking any more quick draws when the position has plenty of play in it unless I’m clinching a cash prize.

  At this point it was only a little after 11 and I had already checked out of my room. Tim was still playing so I headed over to the hotel parking lot to move my rental car. There was no parking on the street and as I was about to look for a spot in the extra lot I saw a public parking lot a little to the east of the hotel and paid $4 to park for the rest of the day. The whole parking thing turned out to much ado over nothing.

Brent Gudowski
  I got back to the hotel and settled in the breakfast room of the Suites Hotel. Breakfast was over but the hotel had free wi-fi and the breakfast room had plenty of outlets for laptops and charging my amazing iPod. Tim came down shortly after winning his game and we headed across the street to the same Grizzly’s Wood Fired Grill where everyone gathered last night and had the twp cheeseburgers for $10 lunch special.

  After a relaxing lunch it was time to head back to the tournament room for the final round. Thanks to my too quickly agreed to morning draw I was tied for third place with no chance for first place but could guarantee a second place tie with a win. I had the White pieces against Brent Gudowski who had been sitting next to me in the first two rounds since our ratings were within a few points of each other. I hadn’t noticed anything about Brent’s play while seated next to him. I reminded myself one last time to be aggressive and we started our game.

  It was a good game until move 21 when I fell apart and forgot about everything I’d tried to do all weekend. I could have played the move I’d been preparing for (c5) but instead I fell into my old habit of playing defensively when I didn’t need to. When I got hit with the Nc5 shot I sent 10 minutes looking for a way out but after that I got discouraged and blitzed out my moves instead of taking my time. And because I was blitzing my moves out instead of being disciplined and taking my time I missed my chance at redemption with 28.Qxa1. Brent didn’t play a perfect game but he attacked while I defended and was more disciplined and it was no surprise that I cracked and he got the share of the second place money that I would have loved to gotten.

  It’s never much fun to lose the last game of a tournament, especially when it’s a money game that I lost by having what feels like a choke moment. Having said that, I thought I played well throughout the tournament and succeeded in being aggressive in a way I don’t think I would have been able to last year. I was especially happy at the way I stayed aggressive after playing an early e5 in the Center Counter against a strong player which was exactly the scenario that gave me fits last year. I wasn’t as good at using my time. The increment left me with a lot of time even after using a minute per move. 90 minutes is a lot of time and with a 30 second increment I could have spent two minutes a move and never been in time trouble. My main problem on Sunday was my attitude. I took the easy way out by drawing in the morning, got passive when under pressure in the afternoon game, and then lost hope after a mistake and missed a redemption shot. These qualities will not win a lot of games and it is no surprise that I didn’t win any games on Sunday.

  Tim’s reward for winning three of four games including a split against the two grandmasters was to play International Master and YouTube star John Bartholomew in the final round. I hung around in the tournament room until Tim’s game was over. We chatted a bit with some of the other players and then headed home around 6pm. Many of the players were concerned that the traffic jam caused by the one lane of traffic on either side of Interstate-35 between Hinckley and Pine City was going to be worse than on Friday because of all the weekend boaters heading home but there was only half the traffic and delay. We stopped again in Wyoming (the city, not the town) to gas and a meal at the McDonalds but to my chagrin I forgot to check the hot dog supply at the Shell station to see if they replaced the last hot dog I purchased on Friday. Tim took the wheel through Minneapolis to Mason City where I took over driving after loading up on a Kum & Go coffee with 2 Stok caffeinated creamers and rolled into Marshalltown at 1:30 on Monday morning. By 4:30 that morning I was walking my beagles and life was back to normal after a weekend in Duluth playing chess.

So long to Duluth! I'm looking forward to my next trip to the far north!

  I didn’t have the tournament result I wanted and that’s on me but I had an awesome time in Duluth. Dane Mattson and Dane Zagar ran a great tournament. The pairings were posted early and the rounds all started on time which is all I ever ask for from a tournament as a player. I couldn’t imagine running a tournament with sections six floors apart but I never felt the sections on the 7th floor were bring neglected. Everyone I met was friendly, the scenery spectacular, and Tim was a great travel partner. The 2016 Twin Ports Open was a great tournament and a weekend well spent.

Saturday, August 13, 2016

2016 Twin Ports Open - The Day I Couldn't Lose

If the awesome views of Lake Superior a block away from the 2016 Twin Ports Open weren't inspiring enough, how about playing just a few feet away from some of the top chess players in the country in the picture on the right? From front to back : GM Alex Yermolinsky (blue shirt with hat), IM John Bartholomew (red shirt back to picture), and GM Bryan Smith (black shirt).

  I had a good night’s sleep in my gigantic room at the Suites Hotel in Duluth, Minnesota on Friday night and woke up at 4am like I do every other day of the year but without any beagles to walk and the tournament starting at a rather late 10:30 I forced myself to take a few naps before heading the Hotel’s excellent and free breakfast featuring scrambled eggs, sausage, hash browns, and waffles in addition to the more continental breakfast items. I was interrupted during one of my naps when Tim knocked on the door to tell me he was told he had only reserved his room for one day. Luckily my room was big enough for the Brady Bunch to have a reunion show so I had a roommate for the day.

  Each player would have 90 minutes per game at the Twin Ports Open (with the exception of the first round which gave the players 60 minutes each in return for the later start time). I hadn’t played in a chess tournament since April’s Okoboji Blitz and that tournament ended less than an hour after it started. My last long tournament was South Dakota's Sioux Falls Open in September 2015 which was a five round weekend tournament similar to this Twin Ports Open but not exactly the same. Both tournaments gave each player 90 minutes per game but while The Sioux Falls Open had a five second delay before any time ran off the clocks the Twin Ports Open gave each player an extra 30 seconds on their clock after each move. This is called an increment and I'd never played in a tournament that used one before. On the way to Duluth Tim explained that with an increment there was no use in trying to run an opponent out of time because if they got down to even a few seconds a few quick moves could get them out of any desperate time trouble. Another difference between the Twin Ports Open and the Sioux Falls Open was that while in South Dakota the reserve section was for players rated below 1400 (which put me and my 1700ish rating in the Open section), the line of demarcation at Twin Ports was 1800 (with a third section for players rated below 1000). I had no desire to compete against players classes above me in the hopes of scoring an upset so I signed up for the reserve section which meant I would be one of the higher rated players instead of in the middle of the pack like at Sioux Falls.

  I had some meager goals for the tournament. My first goal was to take at least a minute a move once I stopped playing the automatic opening moves I’ve used for years. I was fairly successful last year taking my time but with the increment on top of an hour and a half to start with there was no reason to make any hasty moves.

  I’ve been primarily studying tactics and doing tons of tactics puzzles on (which are timed and objectively hard but repeat themselves on my iPod app) and (which are untimed but do not repeat). In addition I’ve been working through the same Chess Steps workbooks I’ve had my students study from, finishing Step 4 the week before the tournament. I felt like I was as tactically sharp as I’ve ever been which made my second goal for this tournament to play aggressively. It sounds easy but after spending decades playing for the simplest positions possible I continually find myself preparing moves I can make immediately and backing up my pieces instead of moving forward especially against better players.

  My third goal was less meager. I wanted to finish in the top three to earn a cash prize. I cashed at the Jackson Open last year and since that tournament was open to players rated under 2000 and my section at Twin Ports limited to players rated under 1800 there was no reason I couldn’t cash as long as I was playing well. And I felt that I had prepared myself to play well for this tournament.

  I ran into Dane Mattson at the breakfast bar and had a light meal of toast and hash browns with him and Minnesota master Wilson Gibbons while Dane asked us about a weird paring situation he encountered in a recent tournament. Pretty soon Dane had to go run the tournament and Wilson and I discussed a number of interesting directing and organizing points that have occurred in deciding the qualifiers for the Minnesota State Championships and soon enough it was time to take the elevator to the top floor and start playing chess.

  The tournament had over 100 players which was a record. The under 1000 section was on the first floor with the reserve and open sections on the 7th floor. There were over three dozen players in both the open and reserve section. The open section was stacked with two grandmasters (Alex Yermolinsky and Bryan Smith), women’s grandmaster Camilla Baginskaite, international master John Bartholomew and 8 other players rated over the national master threshold of 2200. I was the 7th highest rated player in the reserve section which meant that I should be playing lower rated players in the first two rounds and I needed to play for wins in both these games.

Serena French
  My first round opponent was Serena French, a teenager whose brother was playing in the open section. Every player is different but I always go by the following guidelines when playing youngsters: a) Don’t let them attack because that’s likely what they’re best at, b) Use a lot of time and try to project an attitude of infinite patience because children tend to get fidgety and impatient waiting for their opponent to move, and c) An adult is more likely to outplay the child in the endgame because children tend to win their games with attacks, not endings and will not have the adult’s endgame experience. I wanted to follow these tenets but not at the expense of my desire to play aggressively as Serena and I shook hands and started the 2016 Twin Ports Chess Open.

pgn4web chessboards courtesy of
  A long and difficult game in which Serena played well enough to give herself some winning chances. My aggression in opening up the middle paid off when Serena fell apart around move 25 but I continually missed the c5 break and gave away my advantage when I finally did play c5. With the increment I used well over an hour for the game with my biggest think being 10 minutes on move 14 when I played f4 to open the game up. I was a little rusty but never in any danger of losing. The biggest problem I had was with the playing room, which was arranged with the top five boards having their own tables in the front of the room and the rest of the players in long rows across the width of the room. Without knowing how many players were going to show up on the day of the tournament, Dane Mattson and Dane Zagar were prepared for a record number of players but there was an extra row of empty tables that led to a cramped situation. I was on the end of one the rows so I could easily get up and walk around but the player behind me was plus-sized, leaving me a choice between pulling my chair up and banging knees with Serena or bumping my chair against the player in back of me. Then whenever one of the players down the row wanted to get up they would squeeze behind me to get through with some of the players putting their hands on my back to steady themselves. When I left the room after the game Dane Mattson came up to me to apologize for the cramped quarters before I had a chance to mention it and let me know that they were going to remove the extra tables before the next round.

As someone who has directed over 300 chess tournaments I know not everything goes as planned but taking care of issues as they occur is what makes for a successful tournament. When Dane saw the tournament room was tight on space for the first round in the picture on the left he rectified it in time for the second round as you can see in the picture on the right. The organization of the Twin Ports Open gets the highest marks from this player/director!

Sophia Sheehan
  Tim won his first game also and we headed down the street to the Subway for a light quick lunch since there was less than an hour before the 2pm start time for round 2. The Subway was busy but the workers were plowing through the crowd in record pace. We had our sandwiches within 10 minutes, ate, and were back at the tournament easily by 2pm. Dane was true to his word as the extra row of tables were gone from the tournament room with the remaining tables rearranged to eliminate the spacing problems. It was great that a master level player like Dane who normally gets to sit at the top board tables in chess tournaments was looking out for the playing conditions of the lower rated players. It’s no surprise that this tournament is getting over 100 players with that attention to detail.

  While Tim had a tough game ahead against grandmaster Bryan Smith, I was matched up against another teenager, Sophia Sheehan. Sophia’s mother and brother were playing in the open section. Sophia was rated 100 points higher than Serena and had defeated the lowest rated player in the section in the first round. I recalled my advice about playing against young players and reminded myself to be aggressive as we sat down for our second round game.

  An unexpectedly easy game that only took 90 minutes. After the game Sophia said she hadn’t been practicing and in fact this was her first tournament since last year’s Twin Ports Open and she dropped out of the tournament after a third round loss. I was feeling pretty good after having swept the first two games and still had 3 and a half hours before the 7pm game.

Alex Braun
   Tim was still playing so I took an elevator ride to the ground floor, went outside, and snapped some pictures for my blog and some facebook posts. Then I headed back to the room. I knew my first game had some rough spots and my second game was played pretty well but I didn’t want to cloud my mind with proof positive of my mistakes so I resisted the temptation to run the games through my computer and instead took a nap. A little while later Tim came in. The grandmaster he was playing hung a piece and Tim ground out the win for his second ever grandmaster scalp. Tim's reward for his victory was to play the other grandmaster in the evening round. Tim was more interested in gathering his thoughts instead of celebrating halfway through the tournament so we relaxed in the room until a few minutes before 7 and it was time to head back to the 7th floor for the night time round.

  In the third round I had the white pieces against Alex Braun, a tall young blond haired guy from North Dakota who wouldn’t be out of place in a surfer movie. Alex was the second highest player in the tournament and the two players he beat were a bit stronger than the two players I beat. I had the White pieces and was determined to be aggressive and try to make it a perfect day.

  A very tense struggle that ended around 10:30. At the time I thought I must have missed a winning shot that would have put this game in my personal Mt. Rushmore of chess games but Mr. Fritz didn’t find a kill shot any more than I did. When I got to the room, Tim was already there with former Iowan chess player Nate Adamson who drove all the way to Twin Ports from North Dakota with his friends Scott and my opponent Alex. Tim was going over Nate’s game when Alex and Scott came in. Tim showed us his round 2 grandmaster scalp and then looked at my game with Alex, knowing instinctively that there was no kill shot but showing us both how we could have scared up extra attacking chances.

  All in all I am very pleased with this game. It was silly to trade off my bishops but I played a long evening game with a stronger player less than half my age and more than held my own instead of wearing down and wearing out. When I compare that with how I was so tired after two games in the 2012 and 2013 Jackson Opens that I withdrew I’m thrilled at my increased energy and stamina.

  After we had gone over the games I was starving since I only had a couple of apples since my Subway sub 10 hours before. Just like the Okoboji Open players gather on Saturday night at a Mexican restaurant for a group dinner, the Duluth crowd got together across the street at Grizzly’s Wood Fired Grill to eat, talk, and play chess. Tim and I headed over, I treated myself to a big steak, had a great time hanging out, and wandered back to the hotel fat and happy and full of steak around 1am, undefeated in Duluth and having a chance to win the tournament with a good Sunday performance.

What do chess players do after a full day of playing chess or directing chess tournaments? Play chess of course! Except for this chess player who you might see on the left relaxing with a steak after a Saturday of 2 wins, 1 draw and zero losses.
*Pictures courtesy of Dane Zagar, Dane Mattson, and the 2016 Twin Ports Open.

Wednesday, August 10, 2016

A Suite Time in Duluth

I found myself in Duluth, Minnesota this past weekend where I stayed in The Suites Hotel, site of the 2016 Twin Ports Chess Open. The hotel is on the edge of Lake Superior and the giant SS William A Irvin boat/museum is directly in back of the hotel!

  As Harry the cockatiel mentioned in his blog post I traveled to Duluth, Minnesota last weekend to play in the Twin Ports Chess Open. Why travel to Duluth to play chess, you ask? It was part vacation, part a chance to play chess somewhere I never have before, and mostly a chance to visit with chess friends like organizers Dane Mattson, Dane Zagar, and National Master Oke Iwu who I meet at the Okoboji or Jackson chess tournaments. This is the 5th year of the Twin Ports Open but every other year it was either the week before or after the Jackson Open. When I was half my current age playing two weekend chess tournaments in a row was easy but that was then and this is now. When I found out in April that there was a two week gap between the Twin Ports and Jackson tournaments I arranged for the time off from work and made plans to play in both Duluth and Jackson.

  Duluth is at the western most tip of Lake Superior. Access to east coast production via the Great Lakes and the northwest United States via the railroads made it the leading shipping port in the United States over a century ago. In addition the area had iron ore in the ground so a large US Steel plant was built in Duluth. With the decline of the steel industry the town came upon hard times but has reinvented itself as a popular tourist destination with 3.5 million visitors a year.

Welcome to Wyoming, Minnesota - home of $1,000 lottery winner Matthew L (leading to the conclusion that there are at least two Matthews in town). I managed to snag the last or only hot dog but forgot to check to see if it had been replaced on my way back.

This Ford Fusion key costs $225.
And gold is a precious metal?
  I didn’t want to make a 356 mile drive all by myself and was lucky enough to have Tim McEntee come along and share the driving duties with me. Tim is a multiple time state chess champ and a life master but has never driven a car with a stick shift. This made driving my Chevy Spark problematic so I rented a Ford Fusion from the local Enterprise Rent-A-Car. Tim came to my house on Friday morning and we drove to the Enterprise where after some failed attempts at upselling (we could have had a Jeep for an extra $3 a day) were in a Ford Fusion with a set of keys that would cost $225 to replace and were on our way to Duluth. I drove 120 miles to Mason City where we had lunch and Tim drove the next 120 or so into Minnesota and past Minneapolis until we switched places yet again in Wyoming. No, not Wyoming the state (we were heading to Duluth Minnesota, remember) – Wyoming the town in Minnesota with a population of 7,791 that boasts of a McDonalds and a Shell station right off I-35. I gassed up the Ford Fusion and headed into the Shell station to get a snack and catch up on the local news which on this day consisted of the fact that a Wyoming citizen had won $1,000 on a lottery scratch off ticket sold in that very Shell station. For my snack I got 2 cans of Full Throttle for my energy and hydration needs and the only hot dog from the grilling station. Even though I had done a survey of the hot dog stations in Marshalltown, Iowa convenience stores I didn’t ask whether the hot dog was the first of the day or the lone leftover from days (or weeks) past. There were no fresh condiments available in the Wyoming Minnesota Shell station so I squeezed some mustard from a plastic pouch on my dog, wolfed it down with no gastric consequences, and we were quickly back on the road for the last 120 miles of our trip.

No Passing Zone? No Kidding!
  After enduring an hour long delay because of a UNITED STATES INTERSTATE HIGHWAY being reduced to one lane in either direction between the vital 12 mile stretch of road between Hinckley and Pine City, Minnesota we arrived at the waterfront of Duluth around 5:30. We were staying at the tournament site which was The Suites Hotel, right on the waterfront of Lake Superior with a giant boat docked next door. Dane, Dane, and Oke were in the lobby selling tickets to International Master and You Tube chess personality John Bartholomew’s lecture and the following simultaneous exhibition by Grandmaster Bryan Smith in the tournament room on the 7th (top) floor. We chatted a bit and then I headed to my room. I was too tired from the trip to play in the simul or pay attention to the lecture but I did get the commemorative tournament t-shirt.

My spectacular hotel room at The Suites Hotel in Duluth, Minnesota.

  I got the chess rate of $110 a night at the Suites Hotel which was $21 less than the $131 I paid to stay in Jackson, MN’s Econolodge which had a tiny rusty refrigerator, a toilet that barely flushed, and a continental breakfast that had water in place of juice in the dispensers. Given my experience at the Jackson Econolodge I did not have high expectations but if I had the highest of expectations they would have been far surpassed. The room was gigantic and spacious with a full refrigerator (no rust) AND a stove AND a dishwasher! The Suites Hotel is a place a family could stay for a week or month and costs less than the Econolodge in Jackson, MN which has a view of a Burger King and SuperAmerica convenience store instead of one of the Great Lakes.

Cody the Old Chicago server kept dishing out the soda while we waited for our pizza (which was worth the wait).

  After checking in our rooms, Tim and I went to Old Chicago Pizza, one of the many restaurants on the waterfront for a quick meal. Our server was Cody, a molecular biology student from a local college who took our order and kept giving us new sodas while we waited quite a while for our pizza to arrive which was worth the wait when it did.

While Grandmaster Bryan Smith gave a simultaneous exhibition in the large tournament room on the top floor, I got acquainted with Bruno the security person/former bouncer/chess parent...

  After eating, Tim and I headed back to the hotel and went up to the top floor where Grandmaster Smith was giving his simultaneous exhibition. From the top floor I could see the hilly side of Duluth where the people were but I wanted a waterside view so I started wandering around the top floor. I didn’t get far when a guy with a black shirt that said ‘Security’ came up to me and said ‘Sorry Sir. You can't come any further.” It turned out that the owners of the hotel also lived on the top floor and any group that used the big top floor conference room had to provide their own security. I struck up a conversation with the security guard who happened to be named Bruno. I learned a long time ago in New Jersey that you should always be nice to security people named Bruno so I asked Bruno if he was in law enforcement. Bruno said he wasn't but made money as a bouncer when he got out of the Navy. I was imagining having to hire security people for a chess tournament when Dane Zagar came by and started talking to Bruno like they were related. It turned out that Dane’s parents were doing the security and Bruno was Dane’s dad!

  I hung around until around 10 watching the simul and talking to Bruno and then went to my extremely spacious $110 suite to get some sleep with the prospect of five long chess games over the next two days ahead.

Friday, August 5, 2016

Harry's Tweetbag

I am heading to Duluth, Minnesota this weekend to play in the Twin Ports Open and didn't have time to write my regular post. Luckily Harry the cockatiel was able to fill in for me on short notice. I hope you enjoy Harry's thoughts as a cockatiel in Iowa.

  Hello and welcome to my first blog post. As most of you know my name is Harry. I am a cockatiel and the only feathered animal in this house. I used to share my cage with a cockatiel named Mr. Feathers. Mr. Feathers and I originally stayed with a family in Des Moines until they got a new baby and our constant squawking and whistling kept waking up the baby. So the family gave us to Hank and Kathy. We shared the cage for years until one day during our outside time Mr. Feathers flew too close to Daisy the beagle and she snapped at him and killed him. Ever since then I’ve been alone in the house. Not really alone but alone in terms of feathered creatures.

  Hank and Kathy were going to get me a playmate but they read on the internet that introducing cockatiels to each other takes months and even then they may not get along so they decided not to get another cockatiel (You can read about it here). Then Hank read that while it was good for a cockatiel to have a friend it didn’t have to have another cockatiel – we can bond with humans (It's true - click here to find out). Every day during my outside time Hank would have me sit on his finger for a few minutes. Eventually I let him pet the feathers on my head and now we’re best buddies.

  I get outside time away from my cage for a few hours every morning. We close off my half of the house from Sneezy the cat and I get to hang out with Hank before he goes to work. I help him play chess on the internet. I sit on his shoulder when he’s playing and squawk in his ear when he’s about to make a bad move. Most of the time he makes the bad move anyway and blames me for making him losing by being noisy. When Hank leaves for work then I hang out with Kathy for a couple of hours, reading the other side of the paper she’s looking at and then it’s back to the cage for me.

  Normally the beagles would be writing Hank’s blog post but since they just wrote one last month and I didn’t have anything better to do Hank is letting me fill in for him while he’s in Duluth playing chess. Writing a blog post is easy for the beagles because they get out of the house for walks and beef stick treats. I get to leave my cage for a few hours every day but I never get outside. That would make it hard to write a blog post if I didn’t have anyone to discuss things with but luckily I knew I’d be writing this post and put out a call for questions on what else – Twitter @brokenpawn #AskHarry.

  My first tweet is from @Curious1976 who asks “Harry, we all know that birds can’t control their bowel movements. When Hank’s playing chess with you on his shoulder and you go to bathroom on him doesn’t he get upset?” Well, Curious1976 that is a pretty silly question. Birds can control their bowel movements (see it here) but we might make over 40 a day. If you had to go to the bathroom 40 or more times a day I doubt you would get through a day accident free either. Anyway to answer your question, Hank barely even notices. There was one time when he started his new job and he came home complaining that he was in a big meeting with my poop on his shirt. I played dumb and now Hank does a ‘shoulder check’ before he goes to work. It was no big deal because he didn’t like that job too much anyway.

  My next tweet is from @TrumpOrClinton who says “Harry, congratulations on your first blog post. I was wondering who you are supporting in this year’s presidential election?” This is a great question, TrumpOrClinton. I like how Hillary Clinton used every trick in the book to get to run for president. She used her buddies at the Democratic National Committee to keep Bernie Sanders from getting the nomination and her FBI connections to not get charged with having national secrets on her own e-mail server. If she can use those tricks on America’s enemies she will make America great again. But I have to side with Donald Trump because I think we’re related. I mean look at the hairline!

  @QuietGamer tweets “Harry, you said you sit on Hanks shoulder when he plays chess and watches You Tube videos in the morning. Do you have any favorite YouTubers or favorite games?” QuietGamer, I’m glad you asked! I like the accents on the ChessExplained and MatoJelic channels but my favorite ‘YouTuber’ is Simon Williams, the British grandmaster. I don’t like how Simon curses when he loses but I love how he calls his ‘h’ pawn ‘Harry the h-pawn’ and races it up the board. Here’s a sample.

Simon says…’It’s not a game of chess without Harry’!

  I love how Simon plays in a wild attacking style. That’s how I like to play when I have a chance to sneak onto the Internet Chess Club when Hank forgets to turn his computer off when he goes to work. Here’s a game I played last week:
pgn4web chessboards courtesy of

  Not a perfect game but keeping in mind that my brain only weighs a few grams and running around pecking the touchpad on Hank's computer isn't easy this game was pretty darn good if I do say so myself! And since I won Hank won’t even get upset like the time I lost 50 of his silly rating points. Maybe Hank should take me to Duluth to play!

  I have time for one more tweet. It's from @MediacomBad who asks “Harry, I’ve seen from your pictures that you sit near the TV. What’s your favorite show?” That’s a great twitter handle, MediacomBad. Even though my cage is right near the television, Kathy watches her shows from Netflix on her computer. Hank likes to watch ‘Blue Bloods’ but it looks like whenever I watch it the family is gathered at dinner eating chicken so I try to avoid that show and look at the handsome bird in my mirror instead. I like to watch sports and squawk like crazy at big moments because it makes Hank crazy. If I had to pick a favorite show I’d have to pick this one. It must be super popular because it’s on all the time!

  And on that note I'll end my first blog post. Hank will be back next week and probably write about his chess tournament in Duluth for the next couple of months especially if he does well. If you liked my post and want to hear more from me and less from those silly beagles send hank a tweet at @brokenpawn and use the hashtag #moreHarry!